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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bold Predictions (Preseason Fantasy Sleepers)

We've all read about Jay Bruce, Geovany Soto, Evan Longoria, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Phil Hughes. I try to give you some background on players (not necessarily rookies) who seem to be getting overlooked in drafts and in the preseason coverage. Most of these guys are good bets even for 10-team 5 X 5 mixed leagues, but some of them should probably be reserved for those deep keeper league afficianados, of which there are plenty.

Matt Kemp (RF/Dodgers), Chris Young (CF/Diamondbacks), Jeremy Hermida (RF/Marlins), Jeff Francouer (RF/Braves), Jered Weaver (SP/Angels), & Ian Snell (SP/Pirates)

I know these guys aren't exactly "sleepers" in the traditional sense. Kemp, Francouer, and Young are going in the first ten rounds in most drafts, with Hermida, Weaver, and Snell following five or so rounds later. But, remember, many of us won leagues last year on the backs of guys like Prince Fielder, Nick Markakis, Alex Rios, Russell Martin, and Dan Haren. None of them were "unknown" commodities either, but they all fell into the middle rounds, then provided early-round numbers. Now they're all considered Top 50 commodities. All six of these players are 25 or younger, so even though they've logged as many as three full seasons, they've still got plenty of time to mature. In keeper leagues, several of these guys may be left on the board. I'm telling you this much: they won't be there next year. Get while the gettin's good. I think Kemp is your best bet for a Prince Fielder-style breakout year (of course, such things don't happen every season).

Colby Rasmus (CF/Cardinals), Manny Parra (SP/Brewers), & Steven Pearce (OF/Pirates)

Did you know that half of the Rookie of the Year winners from this decade started the season in the minor leagues, including guys like Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, and Dontrelle Willis? Before you spend a mid-round pick on early favorites like Evan Longoria (3B/Rays) and Joba Chamberlain (P/Yankees), consider waiting and snagging one of these fellows at the end of the draft. They have both already been optioned to AAA, but they'll both find their way into a starting role sometime this season. With a little luck (trades, slumps, injuries...Yippee!) it could be sooner rather than later and they both have the potential to start hitting the moment the put on the uniform. Pearce hit 31 HR and had a 1016 OPS between three minor league levels in 2007 and finished the season by hitting .294 during a brief trial in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are converting him to the outfield because Adam LaRoche is entrenched at first base. Pearce is athletic enough to be decent in left, but he is going to need a month or so of seasoning. Once he's ready, I don't think Xavier "Always on the Block" Nady will be too big an obstacle. Rasmus is only 20, but seems to be mature beyond his years. He's disciplined (380 OBP, 80% SB%) and extraordinarily powerful (29 HR at AA in 128 G). The Cardinals have decided to start the season with Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Brian Barton, and Ryan Ludwick in their outfield rotation (perhaps so that they don't start the arbitration clock too early on Rasmus), but this isn't exactly a veteran corps. Rasmus could probably outplay any of them tomorrow. Parra has a chance to stay with the Brewers thanks largely to the injury suffered by Yovani Gallardo and his 0.64 ERA with 15 K in 14 IP this spring. He should probably be regarded as highly as guys like Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, and Clayton Kershaw, but he doesn't get the press. Even if you've already had your draft, he's probably still on the waiver wire. Again, this is one of those get while the gettin's good situations.

Melky Cabrera (CF/Yankees), Coco Crisp (CF/Red Sox), Jon Lester (SP/Red Sox), & Jason Giambi (1B/Yankees)

It's harder to find sleepers on the "Baseball Tonight" teams. Joba Chamberlain, Jacoby Ellsbury, Phil Hughes, Clay Buchholz, and Ian Kennedy (They're all rookies, remember!) are getting drafted way too early in most leagues because of their notoriety. These are the guys that are falling through the cracks. In ESPN fantasy leagues, four of the five rookies listed above (all but Kennedy) are going ahead of all four of the guys I'm recommending. Melky is only 23, but he's logged 1000 MLB at-bats and during a 64-game stretch last season he batted .335 with 38 RBI and an 859 OPS. Now he's being handed a everyday job in one of the most potent lineups in history. Don't you think he's got a better chance of making a contribution to your fantasy team than Ellsbury, who is older, but hasn't adjusted to the big leagues yet and hasn't any more impressive minor league stats than Cabrera? Moreover, don't you think a guy who suffered from injuries last season, but hit 30+ HR in seven of the previous eight years might be worth more than a late-round flier? Sure, Giambi is 37, but given 500 AB, he can still produce like a premier slugger. Finally, I include Coco Crisp because he's likely to find a new home sometime early this season (Chicago? San Diego? Cleveland?) and he'll have something to prove if he does. He stole 28 bases in 34 attempts last year, so he's an inexpensive source of speed and before moving to Boston he seemed to be developing some power (15+ HR in '04 and '05). He's only 28, so don't give up on him quite yet.

Yadier Molina (C/St. Louis) & Chris Snyder (C/St. Louis)

Especially for deep leagues that require two catchers, these are some guys to keep your eye on. Yadi has been pegged as a defensive specialist, ala his mentor, Mike Matheny, but he's only 24 and his brother, Bengie, didn't start developing his power stroke until his late twenties. This is Yadi's fifth season in the major leagues and he's already a gold glove caliber defender, so he's going to get his plate appearances. During August last season, after he recovered from his injury, he batted .341 with 4 HR and 15 RBI. One month does not a hitter make...but Molina is worth considering in your deeper leagues. Snyder is entering that magical 27-year-old season and last year he had twice as many homers as any other season in his career. He'll battle another very deep sleeper, Miguel Montero, for playing time in Arizona, but, again, if you have to draft a second catcher, you're better off with him than a worn-down veteran like Jason Kendall, Paul Lo Duca, or Brian Schneider.

Elijah Dukes (LF/Nationals)

I've been a fan of Dukes for a couple years now. Maybe I am just a sucker for brothers who are down on their luck and have something to prove, but nobody can deny Dukes talent. He may be a loose canon off the field, but he is disciplined at the plate (nearly as many walks as strikeouts in '06 and '07). And although he was below the Mendoza line during his brief stint with Tampa Bay last year, he hit 10 dinger in less than 200 AB, which gives you insight into his raw power. With Wily Mo Pena (another sleeper slugger) on the DL to start the season, it looks like Dukes will get an opportunity to show the Nationals what he can do.

Tony Pena (RP/Diamondbacks) & Matt Lindstrom (RP/Marlins)

If you're like me, than you are always on the look out for ways to scavenge saves. Pena and Lindstrom are both hard-throwing young relievers who dominated in set-up roles and are working in front of closers (Brandon Lyon & Kevin Gregg) who don't exactly have a Masterlock on their positions. Pena and Lindstrom are necessarily more talented than Scot Shields, Brian Fuentes, or Manny Delcarmen, who are great relief choices for leagues that value Holds, but they are more likely to get a shot a saves sometime this year.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bold Predictions (NL Central)

Branded baseball's worst division in 2007, the pride(s) of the midwest suggested they had something to prove this offseason. Houston, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Chicago were all among the most active teams, both via trades and free agency. Meanwhile, it is also a division which is stockpiling young talent. Cincinnati's Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Homer Bailey, Pittsburgh's Steven Pearce, St. Louis' Colby Rasmus, and Milwaukee's Manny Parra are all among the most highly anticipated rookies of 2008. On paper at least, every team in the division except St. Louis looks better this spring than they did last fall, so let the prognostications begin!

6. St. Louis Cardinals

This offseason, though the Cardinals resigned Tony LaRussa, they lost GM Walt Jocketty and many of the remaining familiar faces from the 2006 World Champions. David Eckstein, the World Series MVP, signed with Toronto. Scott Rolen followed him in a trade for Troy Glaus, due to a much publicized falling out with LaRussa. Jim Edmonds returned to his native California in a trade for a mediocre prospect (David Freese). So Taguch, the fourth outfielder who gave the Cardinals 300+ good at-bats in each of the last three seasons, signed with the Phillies and Troy Percival, who came out of retirement and posted a 1.80 ERA in forty innings last year, signed with the Rays. To make matters worse, the Cardinals best remaining pitcher and best remaining hitter are both facing serious injuries. A reconstructive elbow surgery will keep 2005 Cy Young, Chris Carpenter, out until at least July and likely won't be fully rehabilitated until 2009. Albert Pujols, the 2005 MVP, is also suffering from an elbow injury which effects his throwing but not his hitting. He plans on remaining in the lineup to begin the season, but if the injury worsens or the Cardinals fall out of contention, he will probably shut it down early.

These significant losses, combined with the fact that the Cardinals didn't look to make any splashy free agent signings, suggest that Tony LaRussa and the redbirds are due to spend a very abnormal year in the NL Central cellar. There are a few reasons for optimism. Yadier Molina, only 25 and entering his fourth full year in the big leagues, showed signs last year that his offense is catching up with his immense defensive skills. Despite an injury, he matched his career numbers across the board and posted new highs in Average, OBP, and SLG. He was especially strong in August, when he hit .341 with 4 HR and 15 RBI. Cardinal fans can also get excited about young outfielders Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Brian Barton, and Colby Rasmus. Rasmus is among the best prospects in baseball and potential Rookie of the Year candidate as he will presumable take over for Edmonds in center field on Opening Day.

LaRussa and Dave Duncan will again be looking to assemble a rotation from spare parts. But the quality of the scrap is better than it was in 2007. From the group of Mark Mulder, Joel Pineiro, Anthony Reyes, Braden Looper, and Matt Clement they will try to find three quality starters who will eventually slot in behind Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The success of this search will be essential to making the rebuilding process in St. Louis short and sweet.

MVP: Albert Pujols (will outperform all his teammates even if shut down in early August)
Cy Young: Adam Wainwright (2.71 ERA after the All-Star Break)
Rookie: Colby Rasmus (932 OPS at AA, at age 20!)
Sleepers: Anthony Reyes, Brian Barton, Yadier Molina

5. Houston Astros

The 'Stros had one of the most remarkable offseasons in recent memory. All told, they added eleven players who will likely start the season on the 25-man roster, while giving up thirteen players who will probably find homes with other big-league clubs. Now that it's all said and done, however, it's hard to see how Houston is significantly better. Sure, they upgraded at short with the addition of Miguel Tejada (who replaces Adam Everett). But that is the only obvious improvement. At third base, they gave up Mike Lamb for Ty Wigginton. Their career OPSs are almost identical (766 v. 776) in almost the exact same number of at-bats. Wigginton provides a bit more power, while Lamb is a more consistent hitter with better plate discipline. They both give you mediocre defense at a couple different positions. At second base, Houston replaced Astros' legend Craig Biggio with Kaz Matsui. Kaz should be a little better than Biggio has been for the past two seasons, but he is still a slap-hitting leadoff man with no power who plays decent defense. In the outfield, they gave up Luke Scott (.255-18-64) and brought in Micheal Bourn. Bourn had only 119 AB in his rookie campaign, but stole 18 bases in 19 attempts and he wasn't afraid to take a walk. He could be a remarkable leadoff hitter and allows Hunter Pence to move to right field, but he's very unproven and certainly won't replace Scott's power production. In the bullpen, Houston traded for Jose Valverde and Geoff Geary, signed Doug Brocail and Oscar Villareal, while they unloaded Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, and Dennis Sarfate. It's a different looking bullpen, but I don't see how the results will be drastically better. Valverde is coming off a remarkable season (similar to the one Brad Lidge had in 2005), but, like Lidge, he has a history of inconsistency, wildness, and a susceptability to the long ball. None of the new middlemen are equal to the combination of Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler (traded to the Rays late last season), so the bridge to Valverde won't be any less rickety than it was before.

It is a team which looks remarkably like the one which went 73-89 in 2007. Sure, the core of the lineup - Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Lance Berkman - is pretty intimidating, but Bourn, Pence, and rookie catcher, J. R. Towles remain unproven. More importantly, Houston did nothing to improve on their biggest weakness, the starting rotation. The four pitchers who are predicted to follow Roy Oswalt went a combined 27-37 last season, as Astros starters were 10th in the NL in ERA. On paper, it is among the worst rotations in the league, challenged only by the Nationals and the Marlins. If Houston thought they were building a contender for this season, that's a major oversight.

MVP: Carlos Lee (a perennial sure thing for 30 HR and 100 RBI)
Cy Young: Roy Oswalt (only Pedro and Johan have better W% among active pitchers)
Rookie: J. R. Towles (not much to get excited about, yet)
Sleepers: Micheal Bourn, Miguel Tejada, Wandy Rodriguez

4. Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are a popular "sleeper" team this spring, and for good reason. They have a new manager (Dusty Baker), two front-of-the-rotation horses (Aaron Harang & Brandon Arroyo), a marquee free agent closer (Francisco Cordero), a legendary veteran (Ken Griffy Jr.), a bonafide slugger (Adam Dunn), the newest member of the 30/30 club (Brandon Phillips), and half a dozen top prospects (Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez). With Baker at the helm, the Reds will have something to prove and could make an assault on .500. However, they are still one shortstop and a couple of bullpen arms away from real contention. Great American Smallpark is an unforgiving place. Bailey, Cueto, Volquez, Matt Belisle, and even Arroyo will be subjected to some short outings. The young starters will have their meddle tested and the bullpen will get a lot of work. Cubs fans will remember, this is not necessarily an area of strength for Baker. The Reds will score a ton of runs in '08, maybe the most in the division, but they'll give up just as many.

MVP: Brandon Phillips (for what he does with the glove as well as the bat)
Cy Young: Aaron Harang
Rookie: Jay Bruce
Sleepers: Edwin Encarnacion, Norris Hopper, Jeff Keppinger

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates also have something to prove, although they haven't been getting nearly as much attention. The need to fend off the "Curse of Barry Bonds," in the form of their record-breaking 16th straight losing season. It'll be tight, but I think they have the tools to do it. Most importantly, an unappreciated starting rotation. The quartet of Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm are entering their third season in the big leagues, no longer as prone to the growing pains that will plague Bailey, Cueto, and Volquez (not to mention, the Pirates have a more forgiving ballpark). In their first two seasons they went 70-86 with a combined ERA around the league average. This year they will all be 25 or 26 with 300+ innings of major league experience. Both Gorzelanny and Snell showed the potential to dominate during stretches last season. Snell had a 1.64 ERA in his final five starts, while Gorzelanny started the season by going 6-3 with a 2.53 ERA in his first dozen starts. Snell finished 7th in the NL in strikeouts, tied with Carlos Zambrano and Cole Hamels (pretty good company!). As they find their rhythm more consistently over the course of a full season, the two could be among the better 1-2 combos in the National League. Duke, who made a great first impression by going 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA in his rookie year, regressed in '07, largely due to injury, but when he returned from the DL in September he showed positive signs, posting a 3.86 ERA over 14 IP. Paul Maholm also showed his potential during the summer when he went 6-6 with a 3.50 ERA over a run of twelve starts. If this quartet, tutored by the crafty innings-eating veteran , Matt Morris, can take it to the next level in 2008, the Pirates will narrowly avoid a embarrassing entry in the history books. They will have enough assistance from the promising young offensive catalysts Jose Bautista, Nyjer Morgan, and Steven Pearce and the proven commodities like Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, and Jason Bay. Pittsburgh, not Cincinnati, will prove to be the "sleeper" team that dramatically breaks the .500 barrier, much as Milwaukee did in 2007.

MVP: Adam LaRoche (raised his average from .239 before the break to .312 after)
Cy Young: Ian Snell (more strikeouts in '07 than Felix Hernandez or Matt Cain)
Rookie: Steven Pearce (.333-31 HR-113 RBI at A, AA, AAA in 2007)
Sleepers: Zach Duke, Jose Bautista, Andrew McCutcheon

2. Milwaukee Brewers

A unheralded team, loaded with power, featuring 11 regulars under the age of 30, surprises everybody and nearly catches a Chicago powerhouse in the season's final weeks. Sound familiar? Of course I'm talking about the 2005 Cleveland Indians. The following season, 2006, the Indians were heavily favored to win the AL Central, or at least make the playoffs. Instead, the young team, feeling the pressure, got off to a dreadful start and finished six games short of .500. The Brewers' management have tried to prevent a similar backslide by bringing in veterans like Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall, as well as retooling the bullpen which was a source of anxiety for Ned Yost in 2007. However, Milwaukee is still relying on the oft-injured Ben Sheets to anchor a starting rotation which is still in the making. If youngsters Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra live up to their potential and some combination of Dave Bush, Chris Capuano, and Jeff Suppan give the Brewers 25 wins and 400+ innings, they'll give the Cubs a run for their money. But too much has to go perfectly for the Brewers to be a good bet to win the division. The upshot of the Cleveland analogy, however, is that there's a lot of promise on the horizon. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, J. J. Hardy, Bill Hall, Gallardo, Parra, and Bush are all under contract until at least 2010 and the Brewers have more big-league ready prospects - namely Tony Gwynn Jr. and Matt LaPorta - waiting for their opportunity.

MVP: Prince Fielder (He doesn't turn 24 until May!)
Cy Young: Yovani Gallardo (2.20 ERA in last 8 starts, injury will limit innings not effectivity)
Rookie: Manny Parra (some consider him Gallardo's equal)
Sleepers: Eric Gagne, Bill Hall, Matt LaPorta

1. Chicago Cubs

It would seem, they are division winners by process of elimination. Not so much based on what they have as what their competitors don't. The Cubs proved this theory last season when they rallied to win the Central largely because Milwaukee and St. Louis collapsed. The Cubs had a prolonged power outage in the first half, lost Soriano for a month, had dugout fist fights, were booed repeatedly by their own faithful, didn't settle on an everyday centerfielder until July, didn't settle on an everyday catcher until the postseason, and used about a hundred different starting lineups, but still had enough talent to scratch out an NL Central title. They made themselves better with the addition of Kosuke Fukudome during the offseason and can realistically expect better production from Soriano, Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano, Geovany Soto, and Rich Hill than they got last year. The key will be the health and effectiveness of a bullpen which was outstanding in 2007. Thanks largely to Carlos Marmol and Bobby Howry, the Cubs were 2nd in the NL in reliever's ERA. Ryan Dempster may be moving from closer to the rotation, which will put more pressure on those two, as well as Kerry Wood, Micheal Wuertz, and Scott Eyre. Pinella leaned heavily on the 'pen during his first year as Cubs manager, particularly Howry and Marmol. If they are going to be rolling on all cylinders come October, he will have to be comfortable calling on several other arms as well.

MVP: Derrek Lee (16 HR, 40 RBI, 941 OPS after the All-Star Break)
Cy Young: Carlos Zambrano (allowed 1 earned run in 12 innings with Soto behind the plate)
Rookie: Kosuke Fukudome (an on-base maching who'll hit between Soriano and Lee/Ramirez)
Sleepers: Sam Fuld, Kevin Hart, Jon Lieber

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Gaping Holes

This week I'm taking a look at positions which are, as yet, conspicuously unfilled. This is different from positional battles, in which several players with potential are vying for one slot, such as Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury in Boston or Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson for the Nationals, but spots which are completely lacking viable options. For instance...

Baltimore Orioles - Shortstop

Miguel Tejada, coming off the worst season of his career, his first plagued by injuries, was dealt to the Astros, officially ending the steroid dynasty in Baltimore and starting what promises to be a prolonged rebuilding phase. The problem is that the position in the Orioles' infield occupied by Cal Ripken for a decade and a half (and by Tejada for the past four seasons) has no heir apparent on the horizon. The O's have begun spring training with Luis Hernandez as the frontrunner to man the space on Opening Day, but while Hernandez shows moderate defensive promise, his career OPS in the minors is only 621 and has fallen steadily as he moved up through the system. He would be, undoubtedly, the worst player with a starting position in the major leagues, possibly the worst hitter to make a 25-man roster. However, Baltimore's other options, Brandon Fahey and Freddie Bynum, also have very limited offensive potential and have no business playing shortstop.

So, the question is, will Baltimore essentially concede defeat at a critical position or will they sign or trade for a semi-respectable replacement. Even if they choose the latter, which I assume they will, the options remain limited. The only unsigned free agent middle infielders are Neifi Perez and Tony Graffanino. Perez is in the midst of serving an 80 game suspension for amphetamines and Graffanino is a 36-year-old journeyman who hasn't played more than 22 games at short in any of his twelve big-league seasons. Clearly, neither is a superior option to Hernandez.

The trade market is also bleak, but not as much so. The White Sox, having traded for Orlando Cabrera and signed Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez, would probably part with Juan Uribe for a lukewarm body (preferably one that clocks above 90 MPH). Uribe is certainly no Ripken, as his .235 average over the last two seasons demonstrates, but he has been a starting shortstop for half-a-dozen years, is still in his twenties, hits for power, and plays slightly better than league-average defense. In an infield that includes Kevin Millar and Melvin Mora, Uribe would not stand out as the glaring weakness.

If they want to be more ambitious they could attempt a trade within their division for Boston's Julio Lugo. Lugo was a major disappointment last year after signing a big contract. Boston might be willing to eat a significant portion in order to make room for top prospect Jed Lowrie, the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2007 (this in an organization that boast prospects like Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz). Lugo is 32, only an average defender, and hasn't been any better at the plate than Uribe since he left Tampa Bay at the 2006 trade deadline, but he costs twice as much. Uribe's contract only goes to the end of 2008, but Lugo is signed through 2010. Boston isn't likely to eat enough of that money to make is a wise move for the Orioles.

If Baltimore is willing to deal some of their stockpile of young pitching, they might be able to procure a promising young big-league ready shortstop like the Dodger's Chin-Lung Hu or the Angel's Maicer Izturis, both of whom are blocked with their current organizations, but the asking prices would be very high. Desperation measure might include Clint Barmes, Jack Wilson, or Ronny Cedeno (possibly piece of the rumored trade with the Cubs for Brian Roberts). Whatever the case, I sincerly doubt that the Orioles will take the field April 1 with a shortstop who couldn't hit .250 at AA.

San Diego Padres - Left Field

Unfortunately, I can imagine the Padres beginning the season with some combination of Scott Hairston and Jeff DaVanon in the lineup everyday, even though neither has ever had more than 339 at-bats in a season. In a platoon situation, switch-hitting DaVanon would get the lion's share of starts and Hairston would face lefties, against whom he has a very respectable 812 career OPS (compared to 704 against right-handers). However you look at it, neither player is a legitimate regular, especially on a notoriously low-scoring team which claims to have playoff aspirations coming out of a deep division. To a certain extent it is hard for me to take San Diego seriously, regardless of their left-fielder, with Jim Edmonds and Tadahito Iguchi representing their only offensive upgrades. There was a time when Edmonds and Brian Giles (combined with the underrated Adrian Gonzalez) would've comprised an intimidating middle of the order. But that time has past. If the Padres are going to have any hope of contending, they will have to upgrade in left field and upgrade in a major way. Remaining free agents like Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders are not likely to put them over the top.

What the Padres do have is Chase Headley. The 24-year-old third baseman owned AA last season with an OPS of 1017. There would undoubtedly be some growing pains, but he would be a defensive upgrade over reigning three-bagger Kevin Kouzmanoff. The Kouz, raking at a .317 clip with 13 HR in the second half of 2007, could potentially move to left where he would be slightly less of a butcher on defense...perhaps. In the hard-fought NL West, however, the Padres likely will not have the luxury of allowing a promising youngster to mature at the big-league level, as Kouzmanoff and Alex Gordon did in 2007.

The Padres have been rumored in trades for Jason Bay and Coco Crisp, both of which appear to have petered out. Andre Ethier, Xavier Nady, Marlon Byrd, and Jay Payton would all be "Plan B" options that still represent a sizable upgrade over the DaVanon/Hairston platoon. Ethier, who is blocked by Juan Pierre and Matt Kemp in L.A., has the most potential of the bunch, but also comes at the highest price. Ethier really struggled in big ballparks last season, hitting below .200 (in limited at-bats) at Petco, RFK, and Shea Stadium.

Florida Marlins - Catcher

The Marlins let Miguel Olivo sign a contract in Kansas City, which might not appear to be a considerable loss, but Olivo has hit 16 HR in each of the last two seasons and he threw out 33% of runners in 2007 (4th best among MLB regulars). Olivo got high marks from Joe Giradi when he was managing in Florida, and Giradi knows a thing or two about catching. The Marlins have a very young pitching staff with tons of potential, but now are without an established backstop.

The incumbent is Matt Treanor, who was Olivo's primary back-up last season. At 32, he has never appeared in more than 67 games or had more than 171 at-bats. Last season he showed good patience with a .357 OBP in limited time, but as an everyday player he will be among the easiest outs in the league. Moreover, he doesn't exactly dominate the running game. He threw out only 19% of basestealers in 2007 (after throwing out an impressive 47% in '06). Presumably, however, he knows the pitching staff and has their trust, so he'll probably get at least a couple of starts a week.

The new blood is Mike Rabelo, who spent 2007 as a rookie under the tutelage of Ivan Rodriguez in Detroit. Rabelo, 27, showed decent offensive potential in the minors, hitting around .275 for four consecutive seasons and showing a little power (9 HR in 100 G in 2006) as he developed. Rabelo gunned down a respectable 28% of basestealers last year. He will be given the opportunity to assert himself as a starter, but doesn't exactly project as a valuable asset offensively or defensively.

Florida isn't likely going anywhere this season in the stacked NL East, so they won't sacrifice money or prospects to bring in a veteran. But the Marlin program, as outlined by their World Series runs in '97 and '03, should have them back in contention sometime in '09 or '10. That program has always included a top-flight catcher (I-Rod in '03 and Charles Johnson in '97), so expect the Marlins to start thinking about an upgrade by midseason. They have a deep farm system and a stacked bullpen, plenty of arms which contenders (and non-contenders) are likely to covet. Texas (Gerald Laird, Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez), Arizona (Miguel Montero), Anaheim (Jeff Mathis, Hank Conger), and Baltimore (Guillermo Quiroz) might be viable trade partners.